24 March 2008

Hooked on excellence

Joan Bakewell on her grammar school (Stockport High School for Girls):

The school was relentlessly competitive and selective. ... The six houses [named after "significant women of achievement”] competed for a silver cup awarded to "the most deserving house", the winner arrived at by compiling exam results with netball and tennis tournaments, house drama competitions and musical achievements. There were even awards for deportment — for virtually anything that could be marked. We got hooked: it became a way of life. ...

The rules were remorseless, dragooning us in every particular of behaviour. Uniform even meant the same indoor shoes for every pupil; hair-ribbons had to be navy blue. The school hat had to be worn at all times to and from school; girls caught without were in trouble. The heaviest burden was the no-talking rule: no talking on the stairs, in the classroom, in the corridors, in assembly anywhere, in fact, except the playground. We were a silent school, shuffling noiselessly from class to class, to our lunch, to the cloakroom. ...

Among this welter of disapproval conduct marks, detentions and, finally, a severe talking-to by Miss Lambrick [the headmistress] physical chastisement was unnecessary. We were cowed long before things became that bad. The cane in the headmistress’s room was redundant. When a girl got pregnant the worst conceivable crime she was expelled without fuss before she could contaminate the rest of us. (quoted in David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, Bloomsbury 2007, pp. 566-567)

But, as Joan Bakewell says, ‘We got hooked: it became a way of life.’ And, as I observed it at my convent school, it did not seem too bad a way of life. I did not get the impression that most of the girls were suffering very much; children and young people do, I think, quite easily get ‘hooked’ on sets of rules and standards of excellence to apply to every aspect of their lives. Trying to keep all the rules as well as possible even produces a sort of centralisation (to use my own psychological term).

At least so far as my convent was concerned I do not think that ‘disapproval’ was the predominant attitude conveyed, or that the girls were ‘cowed’ in trying to avoid it. I got the impression that they got hooked on ‘being good’ and they felt ashamed and disgraced if they slipped up, but not in such a way that they became identified with being disgraced and gave up on trying to be an admirable rule-keeper.

Joan Bakewell is implicitly critical of her competitive and highly-organised school life, implying that there is some obvious ideal of which it falls short, or which it actively violates. This, I suppose, is an acceptable attitude, probably the only acceptable attitude at present towards any school that makes possible any kind of centralisation.

It may well be that fear of disapproval and punishment was a stronger feature of Joan Bakewell’s situation than it was at my convent, which was originally a fee-paying school, and had become a direct grant school which accepted a certain proportion of pupils with grammar school scholarships. Parents are more likely to pay for their children to attend schools that allow them to feel good about themselves than are agents of the collective acting through ‘education’ authorities.

Centralised psychology depends on distinguishing between what is under your own control and what is not. The reactions and evaluations of other people are not under your control, and it may be helpful in later life to be aware that people can be hostile and will make nasty things happen to you if they can catch you out in breaking one of their rules, which they will be motivated to do. So you need to concentrate on what you can do to help yourself by taking whatever opportunities you can to improve your position.

Schools which convey that anything goes, and that the worst that can be done to you is to be sent home and provided with a tutor at the expense of the taxpayers, may be a bad preparation for adult life.

One frequently hears of people who ruin their lives by incurring terrible penalties, such as imprisonment and the breakdown of their livelihood, as a result of attempting to break the law in flagrant ways with little apparent sense of danger; for example, the hapless couple John and Anne Darwin, who recently attempted to start a new and prosperous life in Panama on the proceeds of the life insurance payments resulting from the husband having pretended to be dead, while really living in a house adjoining his own, in which his wife was still living openly.